11 September 2005

Hermeneutic Hype

Okay, this will be my last post on Xenophanes--except to disclose, tomorrow, the Magical Mystery Text. (Hint: You may easily arrive at the answer, if you look without ease.)

You are familiar, no doubt, with what is probably the most famous fragment of Xenophanes, used as the motto of the journal, Ancient Philosophy:

ou)/toi a)p a)rxh=j pa/nta qeoi\ qnhtoi=si u(pe/deixan,
a)lla\ xro/nw| zhtou=ntej e)feuri/skousin a)/meinon.

Yet the gods have not revealed all things to men from the beginning;
but by seeking men find out better in time. (KRS text and translation)
I find Richard McKirahan's comment on this interesting. He says that the fragment "unsurprisingly rejects divine revelation as a source of knowledge. That is not the sort of thing that Xenophanes' god (note the plural in the fragment) does" (67-8). In a footnote about the plural, 'gods', McKirahan adds: "The point of [the fragment] is that knowledge does not come from divine revelation, not that there are gods that reveal things to mortals."

Yet last time I looked, 'not everything' meant the same 'at least one thing not'. And even if 'not everything' were a litotes, it would still mean no more than 'few things'. So how does McKirahan get from this the interpretation that nothing is revealed? And this interpretation is so settled and clear, in his mind, that he uses it in his footnote to rule out other things in the fragment, as not seriously meant. That is, he uses something not in the fragment to dismiss something in the fragment.

He's not alone in this, of course. I find the same interpretation of the fragment in other sources. (A common claim is that a deity who 'shakes all things by his thought' wouldn't be the sort of deity who revealed anything. Oh, really?)

But what I wish to emphasize is simply that the interpretation is unjustified. It's an instance of what I shall give the name 'hermeneutic hype', quite common in the interpretation of the presocratics:
hermeneutic hype. Def. The magnification of a philosophical view without warrant, especially by assimilating it to some position, similar to it, which is clear and attractive because exaggerated.
The view that 'nothing is to be accepted on authority' or 'only reason, not tradition or revelation has merit' is attractive because it is so clear and simple. We make out Xenophanes to be proposing something novel and radical if we make him out to be saying something like this. The only trouble is, the attributed view isn't warranted by the text.


Anonymous said...

Isn't warranted by what text? That isolated fragment? All of the fragments of Xenophanes taken together?

Also, should we only accept as 'warranted' those interpretations that seem to be drawn out of a text like the steps of a deduction? Or should we not restrict textual interpretation to a few boring statements, as that principle would, and instead allow any proposed interpretation, but demand that it meet the criteria of plausibility and consistency with the texts that we have?

All one needs to make Xenophanes read the way you're rejecting is to understand some irony in the line. Why reject that possibility on the basis of some principle of hermeneutical 'warrant'? One must always be honest about the strength of an interpretation, but why be so restrictive?

Michael Pakaluk said...

I don't find McKirahan saying '...this, taken together with other things, may perhaps be interpreted as...', '...if we are right in attributing X to Xenophanes, then...', or the equivalent, in interpreting this fragment. He says, referring to that fragment alone (using his numbering system), "7.21 unsurprisingly rejects divine revelation as a source of knowledge."

Of course we must always interpret texts holistically, as you say. But are there other texts in Xenophanes that bear on this exact question of whether the deity (or the 'gods') reveal anything to human beings? And there are serious philosophers, such as the one whose views are described in the Magical Mystery Text, who (on rational grounds) denied that the gods do anything immoral, had bodies, or moved from place to place, but who held that the 'gods' nonetheless did reveal things to human beings.

I think McKirahan goes astray actually earlier on, in interpreting the theological fragments. After citing the fragments about anthropomorphism (and already interpreting them too broadly, in my view), he says, "Xenophanes rejects religious tradition in favor of rational considerations" (61). The statement is ambiguous, as between the obvious 'Xenophanes in some places rejects religious tradition in favor of rational considerations', clearly true, or 'Xenophanes thinks we should never rely on religious tradition, when this says something not otherwise discerned by reason'--which is, I would insist, not yet 'warranted'.

I think McKirahan slides from the one to the other, and that then makes his interpretation of 7.21 'unsurprising.'